Dated: 24 May 2016
Mullah Akhtar Mansur, the head of Afghan Taliban was reportedly killed in a US drone strike in Nushki District of Balochistan province of Pakistan. He belonged to the of Ishqazai sub-tribe of the Durrani tribe of Pashtun, and was appointed as the successor of late Mullah Omar in 2015 through a huddle that ended up in a massive controversy. Despite, disagreements over his leadership and the subsequent factionalisation of the movement, the Taliban-led insurgency made gains in Afghanistan under his leadership. Over the course of time, Mansur was able to assuaged not only the rifts with various dissident leaders [Mullah Abdul Qayum Zakir, Mullah Yaqub and Mullah Manan], but also made steady territorial gains in various parts of the country after intensive fighting with the Afghan security forces.
The US authorities and Afghan government are hailing the killing of Mansur as a vital achievement in the context of Afghan-led peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan. They believe it will not only halt the Taliban-led spring offense but will also supports the US strategy to capitalize on the split between insurgent groups in Afghanistan. However, a close look at the decades-long Taliban-led Afghan insurgency would reveal that Mansur’s death will do no good to the deteriorating state of security situation in Afghanistan. In fact it will further escalate insurgent activities in the country.
In this context, Mullah Mansur who was being considered as an impediment in the ongoing reconciliation process in Afghanistan, could have played a meaningful role and contributed significantly to end the conflict in the country. This is because, Mullah Akhtar Mansur was able to prove his credibility as a capable political and military commander by wooing dissident leaders and gaining territorial control, albeit for a short time, in strategically important areas like the Musa Qala district in Helmand, Kunduz City and Pul-e-Khumari and Dandh-e- Ghori Districts in the Baghlan Province during 2015 and 2016. His death has shattered hopes of a meaningful peace process since his successor may opt for a more aggressive posture against the western-backed Afghan government to consolidate his position as leader.
Secondly, the rifts and division among various factions of the Afghan Taliban over leadership issue are expected to widen as the question of succession is yet to be decided by the Rahbari Shura [Leadership Council] of Taliban. Although consultation among the Rahbari Shura is underway but it’s not going to be an easy decision, since it may trigger unprecedented factionalism among the Taliban movement. Mullah Yaqoob [Son of late Mullah Omer], Maulvi Haibatullah Akhunzada, Mullah Abdul Qayoom Zakir, Abdul Manan [the younger brother of later Mullah Omer], Mullah Ghani Biradar and Siraj Uddin Haqqani are some of the candidates who may be considered by the Rahbari Shura for selecting a future Emir. So far the chances of Yaqoob are very bright not only because of his family background but he also enjoys considerable amount of support among the Taliban fighters. However, the question to ponder here is if Yaqoob is appointed as the new Emir, would the high ups and seasoned commanders like Sirajuddin Haqqani, Mullah Abdul Qayum Zakir etc would accept a young and inexperienced Yaqoob as their leader? This is very unlikely to happen, and may further deepen the existing the rifts and divisions among the factions of Afghan Taliban. Resultantly intra and inter factional disputes among the distinct factions of Taliban groups will escalate in the near future.
It is important to mention here that intra and inter group infightings are already on the rise in Afghanistan since the death of Mullah Omar was announced in 2015. According to the database of the FATA Research Centre only from January to March of the year 2016, 18 infightings between various faction of Taliban were reported in Nagarhar, Paktika, Herat, Zabul, Nooristan, Ghazni and Balkh provinces of the country. For instance, 24 fighters were killed in a fierce armed clash between the two sub-factions of Haqqani Network started, after Abid Hunar, a mid-level commander of the Haqqani network refused to accept Mullah Akhtar Mansur as the legitimate head of Afghan Taliban during the first week of February 2016.
Secondly, the growing rifts among Taliban faction will allow other groups like Islamic State of Khorasan [ISK] and Al-Qaida to resurge and expand their networks in Afghanistan. ISK, since 2015 is trying to expand its network in the Afghanistan. Although at present ISK is based in Achin District of Nangarhar, however few ISK militants were reportedly killed in Sangin District of Helmand, Zabul, Herat and Nooristan, which indicates its growing presence in other provinces of Afghanistan as well. Similarly, ISK fighters are also approaching and have reportedly offering unknown amount of money to Pakistani Taliban commanders refuging in Afghanistan to join them. So far majority of the commanders have rejected ISK offer, however four relatively smaller groups of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan i.e. Touhid wal Jihad, Umar Mansur Group, Abdaal-ul-Islam Group and Majlis-e-Askari have recently joined the ISK in Afghanistan. More importantly, Gilaman Mahsud aka Qari Saifullah, the current head of TTP Kurram Agency Chapter who is currently based in Nagarhar Province maintains soft corner for ISK and may join ISK in near Future. In the above context the rifts among Afghan Taliban will further allow space for ISK to expand its network in Khorasan region which will further add to the complexity as well as intensity of violent conflict in Afghanistan.
Thirdly, it will allow space for regional actors [Pakistan, India, China and Iran] to use the various armed non-state actors [ISK, Various factions of Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Taliban, IMU, and ETIM etc.] as a proxy to upturn their influence in the socioeconomic and political landscape of Afghanistan.
Fourthly, the US authorities and the western-backed coalition government in Afghanistan view the death of Mullah Mansur as a window of opportunity to put an end to decade-long insurgency in the country. The US is also capitalizing on the existing rifts among different factions of the Afghan Taliban which rose to the surface after the announcement of death of Mullah Omar last year and the expected rifts and divisions over leadership issue after Mullah Akhtar Mansur will further allow US to drive the wedge even deeper. The US strategy to widen the split among Afghan Insurgents is based on the rationale that if some of groups agreed to join the peace process, it will prompt others factions of the Taliban to join the peace talks. For instance, the US has already brokered a peace deal with Hizb-e-Islami-Gulbudin (HIG), and is expecting others groups to follow. However, this approach of the US will prove futile in the near future as majority of groups if further split and factionalism occurs in Afghan Taliban, will try to consolidate their position in Afghanistan. Which is only possible if any of the groups wins militarily in Afghanistan; resultantly it will escalate insurgent activities across Afghanistan. Even relatively dormant groups i.e. IMU and ETIM present in the Northern provinces of Afghanistan are expected to upturn their activities.
In nutshells it can be said that the conflict arising out of Mullah Akhtar Mansur period in Afghanistan is expected to escalate significantly in the near future. Increasing Insurgent attacks as a consequence of widening rifts among Afghan Taliban factions over leadership issue, amid expansion of ISK and increasing intervention of regional actors to exert influence in Afghanistan will add fuel to the already deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and the region at large.
The Author is the Lead Researcher/Security Analyst at FATA Research Centre, Islamabad